Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced new restrictions Monday for restaurants, bars and state employees in the midst of a continued late-year coronavirus surge.
Oklahoma reported 2,729 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the state’s seven-day moving average to 2,629 new cases per day, the second-highest yet. Hospitalizations have climbed in recent weeks, hitting a high of 1,279 patients on Thursday. In comparison, the state hit a peak of 663 patients on July 28 during its summer surge.
More than 1,500 Oklahomans have died from COVID-19, according to state health data.
Under the new restrictions, restaurants and bars must stop in-person service by 11 p.m. each night beginning Thursday. Service via curbside and drive-thru windows will still be permitted after 11 p.m.
Restaurants and bars must place tables at least six feet apart or install dividers between booths and seats.
Additionally, all state employees must wear a mask in common areas or when around other people beginning Tuesday. Masks will be required for everyone inside state buildings for the first time since the coronavirus spread to Oklahoma in March.
Stitt said Monday during a news conference inside the Oklahoma State Capitol that as new cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, “now is the time to do more.” The governor said he would issue an executive order to enact the mandates.
“From the beginning I’ve promised Oklahomans to always make the right decisions based on the facts and the data here that we’re seeing in Oklahoma,” Stitt said. “We’ve been fully reopened for six months now, but recently we’ve seen our numbers starting to climb.”
The new restrictions come almost a week after Stitt and hospital leaders pleaded with Oklahomans to help slow the spread of the virus by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The governor stopped short of issuing any new restrictions last week, saying Oklahomans needed to practice “personal responsibility.”
Despite calls from city leaders and health advocates, the governor has said multiple times throughout the pandemic that a mask mandate isn’t right for Oklahomans, who value freedom, and he would leave that decision up to local governments.
Asked if the restrictions on restaurants and bars went far enough to control the spread of the coronavirus, Stitt said he believed the mandates were “great steps.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Health has the ability to issue fines or revoke business licenses, but those actions haven’t yet been discussed, Stitt said.
“I am not worried about the compliance because Oklahomans are compliant and the restaurants are doing a great job,” he said.
Jim Hopper, president of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, joined Stitt for his news conference and said his organization supported the new restrictions on restaurants and bars. Hopper said he has worked closely with Stitt since March and that he didn’t advocate against any ideas discussed privately by the governor. But a few minutes later, Hopper said closing restaurants or reducing capacity would be something his organization would oppose.
“We’ve seen so many restrictive things that have been done in other states by completely shutting down in-person dining, inside dining, and we don’t want to see that happen,” Hopper said.
Stitt said while his main goal is to protect Oklahomans’ health, he also aims to keep the state’s businesses open “safely.” The governor also wants to get all children back to in-person schooling after the holidays, he said.
The restrictions announced Monday are the first since the state fully reopened on June 1. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have steadily climbed in Oklahoma since then, but the pandemic has surged in October and November.
“These aren’t our first actions, and they won’t be our last,” Stitt said of the new mandates. Hospitalizations increased by 19 percent in the past week, he noted.
Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye acknowledged that the state’s hospital system has been strained.
“There are periods of time where there are patients waiting for rooms, but there are periods of time outside of COVID where you have patients waiting for ICU capacity, as well,” he said on Monday.
Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said he was pleased to see the “small” restrictions from the governor, but officials needed to do more.
“Our health care system is already stretched thin and, with holiday gatherings coming up, things are likely to get worse before they get better,” Monks said in an emailed statement. “OSMA will continue to call for more measures that can help mitigate this virus, including universal masking and efforts to attract nurses and physicians from other states to come to Oklahoma.”
Stitt urged Oklahomans to shake off pandemic fatigue and “buckle down” as the virus spreads throughout Oklahoma and the U.S.
“We’re all going to have to make sacrifices in one way or another, but they’re sacrifices worth making to keep everyone healthy, keep our businesses open safely and to keep our kids back in school in person,” he said.